A pastor at a Baptist Church in New Haven was allowed to continue leading his church for five years while on the state sex offender registry after a child-molestation conviction, letters from church officials and state court records show.
It was only after his second arrest — in 2014 on child pornography charges — that Eli Echevarria stepped down from leading El Calvario Baptist Church, according to the letters and court records.
Church leaders, who operate independently of the central Baptist governing authority in Connecticut, have not responded to multiple requests for comment. Echevarria is serving a two-year prison sentence.
But the case and the way it was handled have sparked criticism of the church's governing authority.
The fact that American Baptist Churches of Connecticut, the church's ruling body, never informed other pastors of Echevarria's history came to the attention of William Keane, pastor at First Baptist Church of Branford, after Echevarria began attending his church.
Keane criticized the statewide church's handling of Echevarria's situation, including a policy put in place after Echevarria's second conviction that requires state church officials to run the names of all pastors through the state's sex offender registry list at least once every two years.
The policy approved by the church's statewide governing board in late 2014 doesn't indicate that if someone is on the sex offender registry any action will be taken against that person. Instead the policy requires any church leader who wishes to get the results of the background check to sign a statement promising to use the information only to notify his congregation.
"I don't know too many people who have … signed any statement," Keane said, adding that finding out if someone is a registered sex offender should not be the local church's burden.
Details of Echevarria's time as pastor and the statewide church's response to allegations are spelled out in a series of letters from church officials to Keane and statewide church officials.
Echevarria became pastor in 1996 and church officials were made aware of allegations that he had assaulted a child in 2001, according to the letter. State church leaders concluded there was no substance to the charges, but Echevarria was later arrested and convicted of illegal sexual contact in 2006 in connection with the 2001 allegations.
Echevarria was placed on the sex offender registry in July 2006 and given three years' probation, court records show. He was replaced as pastor for the years while on probation — from 2006 to 2009 — by his wife, according to church documents.
Members of the local church then named him pastor again in 2009, when his probation ended, and he served in that capacity until his second arrest, in August of 2014, according to church documents.
The Rev. Judy Allbee, executive director of American Baptist Churches of Connecticut, was in her position when the initial allegations against Echevarria surfaced. She sent the new policy on running names of all pastors through the state's sex offender registry list at least once every two years to all church leaders in early 2015. She referred questions about the Echevarria case to current ABCConn President the Rev. Bonita Grubbs.
Grubbs said that church leaders did not become aware that Echevarria had been arrested in 2006 until after he resigned in 2014 following his arrest on computer child pornography charges.
Grubbs said the policy was changed because of the Echevarria case.
"In light of the reality that we saw with this case it is a proactive stance," Grubbs said.
She said that if the statewide church discovers during a background check that a local pastor is on the sex offender registry, it will inform that congregation. She said at that point it is the congregation's decision on what action to take.
ABCConn does not install local pastors. Individual churches hire, and can fire, their pastor. The statewide group only sets overarching policy.
After Echevarria's arrest on child pornography charges in August 2014, he pleaded guilty six months later. The arrest warrant said that detectives found numerous files on his home computer showing men having sex with pre-pubescent girls, some as young as 2-years-old.
Echevarria resigned as pastor of El Calvario just before he was arrested. He had been listed as pastor of the church in the ABCConn directory for nearly 18 years, except for a few years around the time of his first arrest. The current pastor at El Calvario is Josue Rodriguez. He did not return calls for comment.
The arrest warrant in the first case alleges that Echevarria had illegal sexual contact with a 7-year-old girl he and his wife, Carmen, were baby-sitting. The warrant states that the girl started coming to the Echevarrias' house every morning before attending school across from their East Pearl Street home in New Haven.
The warrant said the girl's mother would drop her off at the house and that "Eli" as she knew him would ask her if she wanted to use his computer. The warrant said everyone else in the house would be asleep and that as she was using the computer "Eli" would lift her shirt up and touch her breasts and unbutton her pants and try to put his hand inside them.
Police started investigating Echevarria when the girl told a teacher about the incidents, which occurred between 1997 and 2001, in 2004 and school officials alerted the state Department of Children and Families, court records indicate.
Echevarria pleaded guilty to illegal sexual contact in July 2006 and received a suspended sentence and the three years' probation. He also was placed on the state's sex offender registry for 10 years at that time. He is still on that list.
Echevarria's name appeared as pastor in the annual church registry until 2006, which also is when he started his three-year probation for the 2001 criminal case, according to a letter written by then-ABCConn President David P. Stevens.
Carmen Echevarria was listed as pastor for the next three years in the annual directory. She did not return calls for comment.
Eli Echevarria assumed leadership of the church in 2009, church records show. He was still a registered sex offender.
"Not being aware of his conviction and based solely on the information provided by the local congregation to ABCConn, his name reappeared in the directory," Stevens wrote in a letter to Keane and board members in October 2014.
After he resigned as pastor of the New Haven church in February of 2014, Echevarria and his wife started attending services in Branford.
When Keane went away on vacation in August he asked Echevarria if he wanted to preach, but Echevarria declined, saying his English wasn't good enough, Keane said.
When Keane got back from vacation he got a call from Carmen Echevarria, who asked to meet with him. She told him her husband had been arrested on child pornography charges.
Keane pressed for a meeting with the board of managers of ABCConn and in November 2014 the board approved the new policy, which requires church leaders to sign a statement agreeing that they will use the information only to inform their congregation.
"To this day they have never actually notified anyone about Eli Echevarria's status as a sex offender or that he is currently in jail," Keane said. He is incarcerated at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center.
In fact, the program for the statewide church's April 2015 annual conference includes a tribute thanking Echevarria for his years of service. "After 18 years of pastoring at Iglesia Bautista Unida El Calvario in New Haven, Pastor Eli Echevarria ended his ministry," the Rev. Sonia Gonzalez wrote in the program. "On behalf of the Hispanic Organization and the entire Baptist family, I want to take this opportunity to thank Pastor Echevarria and his family for many years of service and dedication to the New Haven church. We are going to miss him."